Macomb veteran shares stories of WWII heroics

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published November 11, 2014

 Frank Kogelmann, 92, of Macomb Township, talks about his experiences during World War II while his daughter, Vickie Wangelin, listens.

Frank Kogelmann, 92, of Macomb Township, talks about his experiences during World War II while his daughter, Vickie Wangelin, listens.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Frank Kogelmann might be the only man in the world who can say he once threw a snowball at Gen. George Patton and lived to tell about it.

While stationed in Luxembourg as a radio operator during World War II, Kogelmann was killing time one afternoon in the winter of 1945. His 396-man unit in the U.S. Army, the 118th Signal Radio Intelligence Company, had been brought over to serve under Patton during the Battle of the Bulge. It was an unseasonably warm day, and the snow was perfect for packing.

“I was out there throwing snowballs at anything that moved,” recalled the Macomb Township resident, now 92. “I was on leave at the time, so I had nothing else to do.”

Soon, a group of three Jeeps made its way up the road and entered the base. Kogelmann, in a mischievous mood and enjoying this rare moment of boyish fun, decided to take aim at the middle vehicle. He let the snowball fly — and then realized that he had made a terrible mistake. He watched in horror as the icy sphere smacked the side of the famously hard-nosed general’s Jeep with a thud, sending jagged white shards flying in every direction.

“After that, I ran like hell and found a place to hide out for a while,” Kogelmann said. “If Patton had caught me, I would have been thrown in lockup for God knows how long.”

As it turns out, though, this was far from the scariest moment of his time in the war, let alone his life outside the military. During his 92 years in this world, Kogelmann has seemed to be virtually indestructible, the very definition of a survivor. He has lived through harrowing experiences ranging from bombings in England, to getting trapped behind enemy lines in Luxembourg, to a hurricane on the Atlantic Ocean, to a pair of rollover car crashes, to a massive boat fire, to a series of health issues. Through it all, Kogelmann is still standing.

“He’s got more than nine lives, let me tell you,” said his wife, Donna, with a chuckle.

As his daughter, Vickie Wangelin, put it, “You could say that he’s just a really lucky guy, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. We all like to tease him and say that God’s just not ready for him yet.”

Cracking codes
Kogelmann was born in 1921 on a farm near 24 Mile and Card roads. He has lived in Macomb Township nearly his entire life, save for a few years when he and his family moved to the west side of the state. Growing up, he worked on his father’s farm and attended school at the former Whitney School and at St. Peter Lutheran Church and School. He is a member of St. Peter’s parish to this day.

Shortly before joining the military, Kogelmann was in a nasty rollover accident in his father’s brand new truck. He walked away from that crash without any major injuries, but it gave him back problems that persisted for years.

Kogelmann was drafted into the Army on Sept. 30, 1942. From there, he was stationed at military bases in Missouri and Tennessee before being hand-picked to attend a 13-week “crash course” as a radio operator in Chicago.

Kogelmann was sent overseas to Scotland in October 1943, just as U.S. involvement in World War II was gaining steam. His company moved around a few locations in England, eventually getting stationed at a base along the English Channel, where they spent five weeks cracking German radio codes. There, Kogelmann defied death once again.

“We got bombed every night there on the Thames River,” he recalled. “Our buildings were always shaking, and sometimes they caught fire. One night, bombs were dropping near our air raid shelter. A German bomb landed right by me, but it didn’t go off. It was a dud.”

Kogelmann’s company was sent over to France 17 days after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. They continued their radio operations there for several months, and their good work was eventually noticed by the powers that be, who selected the company to serve under Patton at the Battle of the Bulge the following winter.

“We intercepted and cracked the incoming German codes, then relayed those messages to Patton to let him know what the Germans were doing,” Kogelmann explained. “Patton was our direct boss — we took all of our orders straight from him.”

One day, though, things went awry when Kogelmann and five others in his company found themselves trapped high up in the Alps Mountains, where they continued to crack codes even with the Germany Army all around them. After three days without food or water, the group was rescued, narrowly surviving the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the U.S. during the war. For Kogelmann, this incident proved to be the proudest moment of his military career.

“They picked our company over five others to go there with Patton because they thought we were the best,” he said. “We were able to save the lives of 15,000 men during the Battle of the Bulge with our code cracking.”

Seven months after the war in Europe ended, Kogelmann’s company at last received its ticket home. On the long ride across the Atlantic Ocean, their vessel got caught in the middle of a fierce hurricane, and the water levels inside the boat rose all the way up to the men’s knees. But the ship remained afloat, bringing Kogelmann safely back to American shores.

Settling down
Kogelmann was honorably discharged from the Army on Dec. 3, 1945. He returned home to Macomb Township and married his first wife, Gladys. He also took over his father’s farm and ran it for a decade, but sold it after tiring of the grueling routine. Kogelmann then purchased a restaurant, the Bishop’s Inn in Sister Lakes, which he operated for a few years before coming back to Macomb Township again. He then found a job as a floor manager for the Ford Motor Company, where he worked for 17 years before retiring in 1982.

Along the way, he and Gladys started a family that began with five children and later branched out to include eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Gladys died in 2003, and Kogelmann married Donna five years later.

He also continued to prove his remarkable durability and resilience. About 30 years ago, Kogelmann managed to overcome another rollover accident in Port Huron. This near-fatal crash was more severe than the first, and it required that he be air-lifted to a hospital in Ann Arbor for treatment. He had another close call about 15 years ago, when he was out on his boat on Lake St. Clair. After his engine caught fire, he had to jump ship before the boat burnt down completely, and he was later rescued while floating in the middle of the lake. In more recent years, he suffered a stroke and has had to deal with persistent ailments like arthritis and shingles.

And yet, Kogelmann is still here — living proof that humans can sometimes have more lives than cats. Wangelin is well aware of how special her father’s life has been. This is why for the last several years, she has encouraged him to jot down some of his greatest adventures. They are now collected in a giant volume that includes countless anecdotes, photographs, documents, souvenirs, awards and memories. They serve as links to a past defined by moments as serious as saving people’s lives and as silly as throwing a snowball.

“He has so many amazing stories, so we wanted him to write them down and preserve them for the family,” Wangelin said. “There are so few of his generation that are still around to tell these stories — we knew that we should capture them while we still have the chance. We’re all just so proud of him and everything that he’s accomplished.”

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